It’s an aspect of modern life most of us would struggle to lớn live without. But until the late 19th century, the quickest way to lớn communicate was by letter—made faster with the advent of the railways, but still far from instantaneous.

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The arrival of the telegraph allowed the transmission of messages across greater distances and laid the foundation for quick communication.

But how did technology advance lớn allow us to send & receive sound communications?

Science Museum Group collection
Bell in 1876, aged 29

In the 1870s, Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell was working at the Clarke Institute for Deaf Mutes, Northampton, Massachusetts. There he met the president of the institute, a prominent patent lawyer called Gardiner Greene Hubbard.

Hubbard and Bell discovered that they shared an interest in mechanical và electrical inventions, especially telegraphy.

Later, in Boston, Bell began to investigate ways of putting his knowledge of musical pitch khổng lồ use in electric telegraphy.

His ‘harmonic telegraph’ was designed lớn transmit several messages along the same wire by using tuned electromagnetic reeds lớn send and receive multiple pitches—or frequencies—simultaneously.

This device was designed as an improvement on conventional telegraphy, not as a telephone. Nevertheless, Bell began to speculate about the possibility of being able khổng lồ hold conversations over long distances.

Early type of Bell transmitter with membrane diaphragm. This is an exact replica of Bell's first telephone made in June 1875 và was made by Charles Williams Jr. Of Boston, whose name is stamped on the baseboard.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Early type of Bell transmitter with membrane diaphragm. This is an exact replica of Bell's first telephone made in June 1875 & was made by Charles Williams Jr. Of Boston, whose name is stamped on the baseboard.

What was the key scientific breakthrough?

The following year, Hubbard began to lớn finance Bell’s researches. 

If I can get a mechanism which will make a current of electricity vary in its intensity, as the air varies in density when a sound is passing through it, I can telegraph any sound, even the sound of speech.

Alexander Graham Bell

Continuing his research with Watson, Bell made a key discovery. His tuned reeds could transmit and receive not only exact pitches, but more complex sounds.

At last, he had the basis for a system that would transmit speech.

Was anyone else working on the telephone?

Both Bell and Hubbard knew that another inventor, Elisha Gray, was also working on telephony. Hubbard urged Bell khổng lồ patent the principle of speech transmission as soon as possible, thereby gaining exclusive rights to its development.

Bell & Gray submitted documents khổng lồ the Patent Office in Washington DC on the same day, 14 February 1876. Exactly what went on between Bell’s lawyers & the patent officers on that day will never be known.

Science Museum Group collection
Part of Elisha Gray"s Caveat illustration showing his instrument, filed 14 February 1876


Was Bell’s claim to the invention disputed?

In the weeks after his meeting in Washington, Bell began khổng lồ work on an improved size of transmitter with features remarkably like those illustrated in Gray’s preliminary patent application. This raised the suspicion that he had been given sight of this document in the Washington office. He always denied it.

A senior official in the patent office, Ellis Spear, dismissed the ‘interference’ between Gray’s và Bell’s applications.

On 7 March 1876, Bell was granted US patent 174465A, for a method of transmitting speech by telegraphy—the telephone. 

When was the first telephone gọi made?

On 10 March 1876, three days after the publication of his patent, Alexander Graham Bell made history with a peremptory instruction to his assistant Thomas Watson: 

Mr Watson, come here—I want to see you

Crackly and indistinct, but intelligible, the words were the first to be spoken over the telephone. 

How was the technology developed and improved?

For some reason, Bell later returned to his original ‘magneto’ transmitters & receivers & developed them into commercially practicable devices. Along the way he successfully fought off hundreds of challenges lớn his patent.

In 1877 Gardiner Greene Hubbard formed the Bell Telephone Company lớn exploit the invention.

The company controlled a highly lucrative monopoly on telephone communication in the USA: the multinational telecommunications giant AT&T is its direct descendant. 

Others, including the American inventor Thomas Edison & the Welsh-born physicist David Hughes, developed improved microphones that made it easier khổng lồ hear what was being said. Telephones spread rapidly from offices into homes. 

Wall telephone with Edison chalk receiver, 1879
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Wall telephone with Edison chalk receiver, 1879
Pair of Bell telephones, 1878
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Pair of Bell telephones, 1878

What was the impact of the first telephone call?

Within months Bell could demonstrate conversations not over a few yards but over a few miles, between Boston, Massachusetts and the suburb of Somerville. 

He has gone down in history as the inventor of a device that is now ubiquitous & indispensable—but we might never know the extent khổng lồ which his personal circumstances influenced his success.

The novelty of being able to lớn speak khổng lồ someone many miles away was soon transformed into an expectation of 24-hour, instant voice communication anywhere in the world.

Quick facts

Did Bell really say 'Ahoy'?

Alexander Graham Bell proposed ‘ahoy’ as a standard phone greeting before Thomas Edison popularised the use of ‘hello’, which has stuck up khổng lồ today.

Should other inventors get equal credit?

As well as Bell, Italian inventor Antonio Meucci has a claim to lớn the invention of the telephone, having managed to lớn demonstrate electromagnetic transmission of his voice in 1856. Meucci did file a caveat patent for his invention, but didn’t renew it on expiry in 1874, perhaps because of a lack of financial resources. Still, in Italy, Meucci is credited as the official inventor of the telephone.

Elisha Gray, who filed his caveat patent on the same day as Bell, also laid claim lớn the invention of the telephone, but Bell was legally awarded the patent in 1878.

When did telephones take off in Britain?

Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone to lớn Queen Victoria in 1878, và in 1878 the Telephone Company Ltd was formed khổng lồ market Bell"s phones in Britain.

In 1880 the first phone book was published, and an important court judgment granted the Post Office monopoly on telephone services.

In the early 20th century telephones began to lớn be installed in home, but were initially only available lớn wealthier households.

When was automatic dialling introduced?

In the early days of the telephone network, the user would simply lifted the receiver, allowing the phone hook to lớn complete a circuit và connect to the operator, & then asked to be connected lớn a particular telephone number.

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In 1889, Almon Strowger designed a device to connect one caller khổng lồ another without needing an operator lớn intervene. The first automatic telephone exchange using his design was opened in Indiana in 1891, & the system was widely adopted in its developed form in both Britain & the USA.

In the UK, the Post Office opened the first automatic exchange on the public network at Epsom in Surrey in May 1912. 

Read more about telephone exchanges and the "Hello" girls who operated them,

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From the first crackly telephone call to the ‘smart’ devices, how công nghệ affects the ways we interact.

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